You Have Been Watching…Burke & Hare

If you were to make a list of directors that can successfully marry comedy and horror then Jon Landis would have to be on there somewhere near the top. This is the man whose films include Schlock, An American Werewolf in London, The Twilight Zone and the underrated Innocent Blood as well as overseeing Thriller (not exactly comedy, but certainly amusing). So when I heard that he was to direct the latest take on the Burke & Hare story then my hopes were high.
Then the cast was announced and included Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and, reunited at last, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. There were also to be cameos from Bill Bailey, Christopher Lee and Ronnie Corbert as well as many of British comedies best known faces including Stephen Merchant, Paul Whitehouse, Reece Sheersmith and Michael Smiley (another Spaced alumni). The only piece of casting I was worried about was Isla Fisher as the romantic interest, but I can admit that may be due to my Aussie soap blinkers (it took me ages to admit that Guy Pearce is a top talent).
The story itself is one which has become well known. Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare are supposed to have made a living by selling corpses to renowned Edinburgh physician Dr Robert Knox for use in his anatomy lectures. The popular story is that, running out of natural deaths, they took matters into their own hands and started murdering victims, a situation about which the good doctor asked no questions. Even though life expectancy in the Old Town of Edinburgh in the 1820s was not great, such a spate of deaths drew notice and they were soon dubbed The West Port murders. If you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it here, but the tale of the two is mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story ‘The Bodysnatcher’ and the characters have appeared in many films and TV shows including Colin Baker era Doctor Who, the TV version of the Twilight Zone and the 1970’s exploitation flick Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Here is the trailer to Jon Landis’ version:
The 2010 film, despite the promise of people and plot, is a disappointment. The humour is dire and the scares, with a couple of exceptions, are just not scary. When that lets you down in a horror/comedy then the rest would have to be brilliant to make up. However the pluses are few and infrequent. Tom Wilkinson is as good as ever as the morally dubious Dr Knox, and Tim Curry is wasted as his rival Professor Alexander Monro. It is when the plot focuses on the battle between these two surgeons, and the chance to receive the King’s patronage, that the film is at its best, but those scenes are too few and not enough to save the film. Once you’ve enjoyed the initial appearance of Ronnie Corbett as the captain of the Edinburgh militia then there’s not much further fun to be had.

The main problem the film has is with the two leading men. Serkis is mean enough as to be believable as someone who could turn his hand to murder, but you have no sympathy for him, whereas Pegg, who often looks as if he doesn’t want to be there, is feckless and easily manipulated. The claim that he acts ‘for love’ is ludicrous and has the effect of making him appear simple. When these two are put forward as the heroes of the piece then the reaction to their fate is ‘meh’. You just don’t care. When David Kessler kills in An American Werewolf in London after being bitten by a wolf it is forgiveable because he fights against his vulpine nature, and he is not to blame (unless you are very hard line in your attitude to free will). In Burke & Hare the behaviour of the two men is unforgivable. That is the fundamental problem with the film, there is little humour to be found in the subject matter

There have been two other notable films which deal with the Burke and Hare story, both of which are superior to this one. The first to mention is the 1973 film The Horrors of Burke and Hare, which is a straight down the line, Hammer style, horror movie and which doesn’t stint on the claret. But if you only watch one film about murders and grave robbing in 1820’s Edinburgh, make it 1945’s The Body Snatcher which starts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Lugosi in particular is outstanding in his best role since playing the Count. Its a great piece of cinema, better than any screen version of the more famous Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Here’s the trailer:
There is not enough horror made in Scotland when you consider the Gothic tradition that runs from Walter Scott and James Hogg through Stevenson and George MacDonald to James Robertson and Louise Welsh in the present day. Only Stevenson has been well served by cinema. The standout example of a Scottish horror is The Wicker Man (see You Have Been Watching…The Wicker Man), but its success only goes to highlight the dearth elsewhere. I worry that horror is seen as too genre, and therefore not as ‘worthy’ by those who fund such things. There are always rumours about big screen adaptations of Hogg’s The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room, both of which I would be first in the queue to see. Until then I would suggest getting a copy of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers and maybe leave Burke & Hare alone, unless you are a Pegg, Landis or Corbett completest.

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